I am over-the-moon happy that a place like Iceland’s Golden Circle exists on this planet. Over-exaggeration? I think not…some of the landscapes really look like they belong on the moon (or maybe that’s just the Florida girl in me).
For someone accustomed to white sandy beaches and flat land as far as the eye can see, the Golden Circle’s mash-up of waterfalls, hot springs, and volcanoes was seriously out of this world cool. Even if you only have a short amount of time in Iceland (see everything I explored in 4 days!), the Golden Circle is definitely a must-do on your Iceland itinerary.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the ultimate guide of everything you need to know about Iceland’s Golden Circle.
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What is the Golden Circle?
Iceland’s Golden Circle is an insanely beautiful 300 kilometer drive that loops from Reykjavik into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. The Golden Circle is an easy drive and one of the most popular ways to see all of the beauty that Iceland has to offer in a day trip.
Should I Self-Drive or Take a Tour?
There are pros and cons to each option here, so let me break it down for you.
Self-drive: You can stop where you want and take photos of every Icelandic horse you see (if you fancy). You also have more flexibility on timing. Cons include navigating yourself (I always get lost), high gas prices, expensive rental cars, and occasionally difficult road conditions (depending on the season).
Golden Circle Tour: All of the planning is done for you, but the stops are also pre-planned, so you have less flexibility. However, the guides will give you Icelandic history tidbits the whole way (very cool!), and it’s totally fine if you nap between stops. For someone that always falls asleep in cars, this is super key for me.
Decision: As a solo traveler, it made sense for me to choose a tour (also I hate driving!) I opted to do the Pearl Tour with Mountaineers of Iceland and I cannot recommend it enough. First off, the small group size (6 people) was fantastic, the guide was hilarious, and he even worked in an ice cream stop for us! My love for this tour was probably also due to our epic ride (see giant Mercedes ICE 8 below) and the fact that we went snowmobiling across a glacier. If this doesn’t convince you to check them out, I don’t know what will.
If you’d prefer to take a Golden Circle tour without snowmobiling, there are plenty of options for you! This Golden Circle Tour takes you to the highlights of Iceland’s Golden Circle, and is a great value.
What are the Must-See Sights on the Golden Circle?
I’ll be honest, you can spend days taking pictures in the Golden Circle; it’s just that pretty. However, since I have a job (and limited vacay time), I picked a few highlights that you absolutely must see in Iceland’s Golden Circle
Gullfoss Waterfall – This waterfall is one of the most popular in Iceland, and when you visit, you’ll see why. Just check out these incredible views!
Geysir Hot Springs – The large geyser shoots very hot (think 100 degrees Celsius) water into the air about every 10 minutes. It’s definitely worth seeing the show, but the rest of the area is gorgeous too. I loved the smaller hot springs steaming against a mountain backdrop.
Þingvellir National Park – This national park is home to the division between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, which is super cool, even to a non-geological expert like myself. Like the stops above, make sure to budget plenty of time to stroll around and take photos! If you’re adventurous, check out a combo tour that includes the Golden Circle and snorkeling between the tectonic plates! This is a million percent on my list for next time.
Other Stops & Activities along the Golden Circle
Efstidalur – Stop by this restaurant and ice cream bar for homemade ice cream. You can even hang out with the cows they use to make the ice cream!
Lanjokull Glacier – The Pearl Tour with Mountaineers of Iceland includes the snowmobiling stop in their tour, and it is awesome! You can snowmobile up the glacier, take a break at the top for some sweet Insta photos, and of course, have a snowball fight! As an aside, this Florida girl totally held her own with the snowball fight. If you’re doing a self-drive tour, but still want to snowmobile, you can check out a guided snowmobile tour from Gullfoss.
Horseback Riding – When in Iceland, take a ride on the Icelandic horses through the beautiful countryside. They’re so sweet, and what better way to see a country?
Cheap flights: I’d recommend searching through eDreams.net. They scan tons of different travel discount sites and feature special flight deals. You can typically find good flights on IcelandAir and WOW Air.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik: For higher end hotels, look into Hotel Ódinsvé—the hotel has an awesome location downtown. For a mid-range option, I’d recommend Hotel Frón; this hotel is also centrally located and even has kitchen facilities in the apartments. If you’re looking to avoid hotels and go the hostel route, I recommend checking out Hostelworld – there are plenty of options in Reykjavik! My personal hostel recommendation is Loft Hostel. You have an amazing location in the heart of the city, and I absolutely loved the ambiance of the common area/bar and outside terrace.
For More on Iceland: For another awesome day trip from Reykjavik, check out the 10 must-see highlights on Iceland’s South Shore. I also have a guide on the top Instagram worthy photo spots around Reykjavik, and a supremely delicious foodie’s guide to Reykjavik.
Iceland’s Golden Circle is absolutely unreal. Let me know in the comments if you’ve been there (or Iceland in general)! If not, go book that plane ticket!